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Neal Milner: Pointers For When You’re Stuck Talking Politics

Neal Milner: Pointers For When You’re Stuck Talking Politics
These are conversations many of us try to avoid. But when the time comes, you might as well be persuasive.
By Neal Milner  / About 18 hours ago
A month or so ago when my wife, Joy, and I were at a family celebration at an Italian restaurant not far from Washington, D.C., some people at our table decided that they wanted to talk politics.
The discussion that followed stunk, a total waste of time. No one learned anything useful. No one changed his or her minds about anything.
Looking at how badly this discussion went is a good way of considering why today’s politics are so depressing and what might be done to change this.
Is political discourse a means to achieve what this sign-carrier advocated at Honolulu’s March For Science in April? Not unless the people talking know how to be persuasive.
Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat
The hook is this: I will not be talking issues or parties. I am going to focus on how neuroscientists say your brain works because brain science tells us a lot about the sad state as well as the potential of politics today.
The dinner table discussion that night was brainless because all of us, conservatives and liberals, behaved instinctively with total unself-consciousness about how the human brain works.
The discussion immediately went down the wrong path when it turned into an argument. As the neuroscientist Tali Sharot puts it, “When it comes to arguing, our instincts are wrong.” (“The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others”).
These instincts are based on the “old brain,” those ancient but still present parts of the brain that lead us initially to imagine the bad things that can happen and respond by warning people of calamitous consequences.
So let’s take a close look at that misguided family dinner interchange in light of what neuroscience tells us about how to get people to change.
How Not to Change People
Before the main course had been served, somebody at the long banquet table where we sat asked a leading question about politics. Right away it became clear that some people, myself included, did not want to talk about it. But it went on anyway as if everyone was enraptured.
This misreading violates Sharot’s:
• Persuasion Rule No. 1 — You can’t successfully talk about something that others do not want to talk about.
Our intuition is that if we have something that we think is important to say, others will want to know about it. Nothing ignites this intuition more than today’s politics.
But the temptation is counterproductive. No matter how important you think something is and how eloquently or passionately you think you present it, you will make no headway if others don’t want to get involved.
If people find a subject painful, they will work even harder to avoid it because of your passion.  They turn off your bubble machine.
And then those at the table who were engaged began to argue. 
Which is counter to:
• Persuasion Rule No. 2 — You don’t convince by arguing.
People resist information that makes them feel bad. Talking about dire consequences typically makes people resist even more.
Soon the discussion became a fact contest, which then segued into a truth contest. 
Thus bye-bye to:
• Persuasion Rule No. 3 — Facts, are overrated.  Numbers and stats may tell a truthful picture, but as persuaders not so much.
As Sharot says, a data-based approach “ignores the core of what makes us human: our motives, our fears, our hopes and desires.”
On the other hand, stories create vivid picture that stick in mind and are easily retrieved.
After awhile, someone said to Joy, “I am an independent thinker. I’m disappointed that you aren’t.”
This self-proclaimed independent thinker had worked for Republican candidates and once considered running for his state legislature. He thinks Obamacare is a disaster. He thinks the media are biased. 
This person is not an independent thinker. Neither is my wife. Neither am I, and neither are you.
The independent free thinking voter is a powerful myth, but it is totally contrary to human behavior, violating:
• Persuasion Rule No. 4: When it comes to adopting ideas, individuals are not autonomous or independent.
We are social beings.  Our brains have evolved in ways that encourage us to do what others we trust do.  And we typically do this implicitly by developing attachments or watching others.
The human brain is adaptable but very stable. It has taken millions of years to evolve. Still, much old brain remains in your head.
Presently our brains are up against contemporary developments that stimulate old brain thinking like that dinner table behavior.
Seek Commonality
Think of three developments: social and political polarization, social media and a politics and president stressing grievance, difference and isolation.
In her book, Sharot also points out the other side of the coin. People are more likely to be persuaded if you frame things in terms of commonality rather than difference; if something is seen as pleasant and affirming rather than dire (see her discussion of the Virgin America Airlines pre-flight safety video:, and if the persuader acts in synch with the emotions of the folks she is trying to change or motivate.
There are some awkward but encouraging signs that this is happening. Many conservatives talk of finding a common narrative about America that unites us despite our other political differences.
Typically that is not an approach liberals take, but things have changed.
Here is what a Democratic Party pollster recently said about this shared story:
Until we (Democrats) can better engage these voters in a conversation that lessens their very real angst about the changes that are happening in the country and pivot to a compelling narrative about how we all win the future together or divided we will certainly lose it to our competitors.
There are so many reasons to be pessimistic about these attempts to engage voters this way, but at least some influential political thinkers and doers have begun to take the need for engagement and commonality more seriously.
That’s a start. Now pass the pasta.
About the Author
Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio’s “The Conversation.” His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants.
Ron Richey
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